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    Thursday, April 18, 2024

    Lyman Allyn buys portrait reflecting the community of free Blacks in pre-Civil War New Orleans

    Circle of Julien Hudson (New Orleans, mid-19th century), Portrait of a Youth, oil on canvas, 12 x 8 7/8 inches. (Lyman Allyn Art Museum)

    The Lyman Allyn Art Museum’s “American Perspectives” gallery has a new — and significant — painting.

    It’s a portrait is of a mixed-race youth, circa the 1830s or 1840s. According to the Lyman Allyn in New London, it is “a rare painting that speaks to the diverse community of free Blacks that existed in New Orleans before the Civil War.”

    While it’s not absolutely certain who painted it, the portrait “is closely related” to the work of Julien Hudson (1811-44), who was one of the earliest free painters of color in America.

    In discussing the museum’s purchase of the piece, Lyman Allyn Director Sam Quigley says, “We are trying to address the historical inequities in our collection by actively pursuing acquisitions that represent art made by African Americans and other people of color or representing people of color.”

    In fact, that is one of the eight objectives of the multicultural action plan that the museum’s board adopted last year. The plan involves redressing the inequities of the past in terms of elements including exhibition programming, board and staff composition, and the collection. The goal is to bring an inclusive attitude to everything done at the museum.

    Quigley says that this portrait “was a particularly interesting possibility for us because it speaks to the subject about which I really knew very little – namely, that there was a free Black community in pre-Civil War New Orleans and that it was a thriving community perhaps not different from the Black Wall Street of Tulsa, Oklahoma. (It’s) unknown to most of us because of the way we learn history but of very great importance. As such, this portrait done by a person in the circle of Julien Hudson represents, I think, an extremely early work of art by a person of color and depicting a person of color speaking to us over the centuries about a very unknown period. So it's of great importance from that perspective.”

    He adds that the portrait has a poignancy and a tenderness similar to another portrait the museum has, Isaac Sheffield’s painting of a boy named Jimmy Smith; the latter is “a picture that is very beloved by many, many people here,” he says.

    While the museum isn’t displaying the works side-by-side, the figures “do have an incredible affinity, a pure and honest gaze from the canvas that is very moving,” Quigley says.

    It’s unknown who the youth is in the portrait, and it’s not certain that Hudson painted the piece. Hudson is only known by five signed portraits, so it’s difficult to identify his work completely.

    “It’s not signed so we don’t know who actually painted it, but it bears such resemblance to the other works by Julien Hudson that the attribution is ‘circle of,’” Quigley says.

    The museum was able to afford the piece because of that lack of certainty of the attribution. If Hudson has signed it or it was absolutely definite that it was his work, the cost would easily have been four or five times what the Lyman Allyn paid for it, Quigley says. (He declines to say how much the museum paid.)

    Quigley notes the painting is in excellent condition and is “one that we’re very proud to hang as an aesthetic experience in our gallery of artwork from the early 19th century.”

    He adds, “It’s beautifully painted, great attention to detail. As I said before, the gaze of this youth is very piercing, it’s very poignant and commanding at the same time.”

    The painting was purchased for the Lyman Allyn’s permanent collection from Robert Simon Fine Art, Inc., in New York. It had been featured there in the recent exhibition “Beyond Boundaries: Historical Art by and of People of Color.”

    “A member of our committee on collections and exhibitions, Christopher Bishop, who is a dealer himself, was the one who pointed this (portrait) out to us and recommended that we pursue it. We are very grateful to him for that,” Quigley says.

    The museum took possession of the painting last week.

    “To the extent that we can, we will continue doing research on trying to more formally establish the attribution, and that might involve highly technical examination — forensic analysis, if you will, about the paints and the canvas and everything like that. So I guess I’m saying: We are going to continue, so stay tuned on this one,” Quigley says.

    The Lyman Allyn hasn’t done much of that kind of technical examination before, but it’s becoming a much more common practice among conservators and research scientists.

    The Lyman Allyn has a small acquisition budget, so the museum buys only a few items a year. For example, notable purchases in the several recent years were centered around its permanent “Louis Comfort Tiffany in New London” exhibition; a Tiffany dragonfly lamp and lily lamp, and a painting by Tiffany himself were three acquisitions that the museum felt were necessary for the exhibition.

    Quigley says this new painting “is addressing very deliberately another gap in our collection and represents an initiative we are going to continue doing to try to acquire more works of art by people of color.”

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